The Topography of Historical Contingency

in Journal of the Philosophy of History
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Starting with Ben-Menahem’s definition of historical contingency as sensitivity to variations in initial conditions, we suggest that historical events and processes can be thought of as forming a complex landscape of contingency and necessity. We suggest three different ways of extending and elaborating Ben-Menahem’s concepts: (1) By supplementing them with a notion of historical disturbance; (2) by pointing out that contingency and necessity are subject to scaling effects; (3) by showing how degrees of contingency/necessity can change over time. We also argue that further development of Sterelny’s notion of conditional inevitability leads to our conclusion that the topography of historical contingency is something that can change over time.




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  • Illustration of catchment concept and its representation of pathways of necessity and contingency.
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  • Close-up of ‘problematic’ zone where measurement accuracy is less than diffference between catchment divides.
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  • Entrenchment of channel in network.
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  • Illustration of parallel evolution. Channel constrained by factors such as environment, morphology, physiology and reproductive biology.
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  • Illustration of convergent evolution. Channel B crosses into channel A at X and the shaded area represented the potential pathways from X to the channel in catchment A for the species. Note the much lower divide for channel B implying that the species in that channel has developed into a section of the catchment where constraints on the future development of the species lessen. This process is analogous to river capture in drainage development.
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